Book Review: The Word of His Grace: A guide to teaching and preaching from Acts
By Chris Green. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 2005, 978-84474-075-7,189pp., $A19.99, paper.
Many factors conspire against creating and sustaining an evangelistic culture in our Christian communities. In my experience, one of the key antidotes is the regular preaching and teaching of Acts. To this end, Chris Green, Vice-Principal of Oak Hill College in London has written an overview of the book specifically for the preacher, and this serves as a very helpful foundational tool.
This book is not a commentary. Green begins by outlining key principles for understanding Acts in toto, then in Section 2 breaks the book into 7 "panels", examining in more detail the themes conveyed. A particular strength in these two sections is Green's outlining of Luke's careful narrative structure, and the various narrative devices he uses, such as parallelism, escalation and contrast. Green is keen to show that Luke has not simply written a chronology, but has carefully structured his account with theological purpose. This exposes and highlights key truths and helps answer some of the recurring theological and pastoral issues raised by the book.
Green is always writing with the preacher in mind and his third section is comprised of 6 sample sermons. A fourth section contains an extended summative overview of the content of the gospel in Acts, and a synoptic discussion of 7 other major themes: Evangelism, Church planting, Discipling, Suffering, Prayer, Preaching, and Leadership.
Green argues that Jesus' promise to the disciples in Acts 1:8 "gives a fourfold pattern to the book" (15), with geographical markers that "tell a theological story too" (15): "a worldwide evangelistic message of the kingdom of God for today" (19). The ascended Jesus is continuing his work (30, 174), and the Holy Spirit's role "is to push the churches outwards into new missionary activity...This activity is focussed on telling people about Jesus" (26).
Green's focus on the word of God is a strength. He demonstrates how God's word is fulfilled and how it forms, teaches, disciplines, frees and encourages the first Christian communities. Green also argues that "Luke has an understanding that everyone is to be involved in the task of spreading the message; hence he deliberately puts centre stage in evangelism those whom we might think he has disqualified" (61) - Stephen and Phillip, elected as deacons to administer the distribution to the widows. Of fresh interest was Green's comparison of the Lord's passion with Paul's own determined, yet turbulent journey to Rome, arguing that the shipwreck story is "a kind of passion narrative" (114).
Although Green outlines well the narrative architecture in the expansion of the gospel, more could be made of the narrative elements in its climactic triumph on reaching Rome, the heart of the empire, despite the conspiring of Jew and Greek, storm, shipwreck and snake. Green states that the purpose of the final panel (chapters 22-28) is "to commend the reasonableness of the gospel" (113). Surely it is much more than this. God's word has triumphed in its extension, just as Jesus promised. Related to this, Green is unclear, and perhaps unfair, when he argues that "it would be an overstatement to say that we live in 'Acts 29'" (18) and that "we live, still, in Acts 1-28" (19). While in one sense an era is ended when the gospel reaches Rome, the expanding narrative structure of Acts clearly implies and expects that the gospel will continue out despite opposition. As such it ought to be normative for all Christians to participate in it. Participation in this dynamic expanding core work of God is exciting, though difficult. This is the work at God's heart, and we are in tune with God's purposes when we are fully in cooperation.
I would have preferred a clearer statement on the relationship in Acts between the three persons of the Trinity and the Word of God. Green initially argues that "if Acts has a hero at all, it is God" (10, also 97). But later he argues that "the real hero of the book of Acts is the word of God" (183). He also states that we must read "Acts as the continuing work of the risen and ascended Jesus" (30, also 42). And although Green notes that the key work of the Holy Spirit in Acts is "to push the churches outwards into new missionary activity" (26), one senses an unnecessary minimisation or defensiveness about the place and work of the Spirit.
The sermons are an excellent idea, but I found them variable. Green acknowledges that the sermons are "very condensed" and need "warming up" (116), with contextualisation, notably in their introductions for various audiences. But this means they read more as essay texts, rather than as oral texts. In particular, I did not feel Green's evident understanding of Luke's numerous narrative devices has carried over into the sermons' design and content. With regard to application, Green's view that "the Bible's world is our world" (119) and that "there is no great gap to be bridged, because God had this Sunday, this congregation and this sermon in mind when he inspired the original passage" (119) needs some nuancing. Nevertheless, the sermons contain useful and stimulating material and serve well as an early port of call in a reader's preparation.
A worthwhile addition to the preacher's library!
Adrian Lane is Lecturer in Ministry Skills and Church History at Ridley Melbourne.